WESLACO, Texas (Border Report) — In a quiet thicket behind a locked gate at the Frontera Audubon Nature Preserve, turkey vultures roost and circle over a pond while dozens of other species of birds frolic in the thorny brush of the Tamaulipan thornscrub forest just not far from the Mexican border in deep South Texas.

The thousands of species of migrating birds that pass through the Rio Grande Valley in route to points south each winter are safe from hunters in this 15-acre preserve and are a living legacy to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 that was designed generations ago to enhance their lifespan.

The refuge is an oasis of sorts in the heart of this border city of 41,000 located in the middle of the Rio Grande Valley. It’s a place where Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, comes often to hike the mile-long loop and to enjoy the peaceful chirping.

Standing beneath a grove of tangled ash trees and sugar hackberry trees and a maze of yellow sophora shrub, Chapman this week reflected to Border Report on the importance of birding to the Rio Grande Valley economy. Eco-tourism brings in Winter Texans and boosts regional revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars. And like many environmentalists, he worries that unprecedented changes that the Trump administration recently announced to the century-old Migratory Bird Treaty could lead to the deaths of potentially “billions more” birds, especially here on the border.

“When you think of all the administrations and the presidents we’ve had since 1918, this is the first administration that wants to weaken that bedrock bird protection law,” Chapman said. “I don’t know what the new incoming administration could do to reverse it.”

Jim Chapman, president of the nonprofit Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, is seen on Nov. 30, 2020, at Frontera Audubon Nature Preserve on Weslaco, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Last week, the Trump administration announced the most significant changes to the law in decades. The changes — released Friday by the Department of the Interior in its Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) — will greatly limit federal authority to prosecute industries for practices that kill migratory birds. The new rules are expected to take effect in 30 days — just before Joe Biden takes office — and will scale back federal prosecution authority for threats that migratory birds face from various industries, such as wind turbines, oil fields and power lines.

David Yarnold, president and CEO of the National Audubon Society, on the nonprofit’s website called it a “bird-killer policy.”

“Reinstating this 100-year-old bedrock law must be a top conservation priority for the Biden-Harris Administration and the 117th Congress,” Yarnold said.

Yarnold says that the Trump administration rushed through an environmental review of the law and cut short the pubic commenting period, which “has made a mockery of the public engagement and scientific review required under the law.”

A great blue heron is seen at the edge of a pond on Nov. 30, 2020, at the Frontera Audubon Nature Preserve in Weslaco, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The changes came despite a federal court in August invalidated the rollback policy. Last January, the the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee voted to advance the Migratory Bird Protection Act, a bill that would not only counter the rollback but would have added increased protections for birds.

The new law will make illegal the intentional killing of migratory birds, but not unintentional deaths, such as from wind turbines or other industry apparatus.

Chapman points out that most birding deaths do not occur from hunters or those on the “take,” but from industrial association, such as birds caught in oil wells or electrocuted on power lines. The inability to prosecute industries for these deaths is like giving them a pass, Chapman said Monday.

“The Migratory Bird (Treaty Act) is the oldest bird protection treaty in the United States,” Chapman said. “To weaken that at the same time we’re recognizing that bird numbers are plummeting is just  a terrible idea and it shows a total indifference to the plight of our birds.”

It’s just a terrible idea and it shows a total indifference to the plight of our birds.”

Jim Chapman, president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor

A spring report by “Science” found that 2.9 billion birds have died since 1970 in North America, that’s roughly one in four birds.

Graphic courtesy of Science magazine

Up to 175 million birds die per year due to power lines; 50 million birds die annually from communication towers; about 1 million die from oil waste pits; and thousands die from gas flares, according to a 2017 report by the National Audubon Society.

Jim Chapman, president of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, unlocks a gate to the Frontera Audubon Nature Preserve in Weslaco, Texas, on Nov. 30, 2020. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report Photos)

The EIS published Friday has statements from industry scientists saying changing the law will be “likely negative” to birds, saying over time “fewer entities would likely implement best practices” to safeguard birds.

“That’s a huge deal because what is their incentive to prevent the incidental taking?” Nicole Ekstrom, president of the nonprofit Friends of Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, told Border Report on Tuesday.

There are over 415 species of birds at Laguna Atascosa, a 97,000-acre wildlife preserve on the Gulf coast of Cameron County. And that draws Winter Texans and birders of all ages to this region, she said.

Laguna Atascosa includes wetlands, coastal prairies, mudflats and Gulf beaches, and is a designated Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network site, along with Rancho Rincón de Anacahuitas in Mexico. The two sites make up the first bi-national sites that altogether host at least 100,000 shorebirds annually, according to the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.

Across the lower Rio Grande Valley, there are dozens of nature preservation sites, like Frontera Audubon and Laguna Atascosa, including three state parks, and at least seven annual birding festivals held (except most were not held in 2020 due to the coronavirus.) A 2011 Texas A&M University study found that birders contribute an estimated $463 million to the local economy each year.

“So many businesses rely directly or indirectly on birding,” Ekstrom said.